There are many great things to do in California. This is one of the most unique states on the US mainland.
Most people who visit California think Hollywood and go south. But there are a lot more things to do in California, many more places to visit than just Hollywood. From beautiful cities to gorgeous countryside, from water sports to historical sites to raw nature at its finest, there is something for everyone in the state Americans affectionately refer to as the ‘Left Coast’.
San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco are all great places to start exploring California. Once you are done with then, work your way along the coast as you head into the mountainous northern regions. While there, take a trip along the scenic Pacific Coast Highway. It is a breath-taking drive you are bound to remember for the rest of your life.
Anyways, there are many more things to do in this amazing state, and it may be worth summing a few of them up. Continue reading for a selection of what to do in California.
44 Fantastic Things To Do In California
Admire the Golden Gate Bridge
I know it is possibly among the most cliché-like tourist attractions in California, but I never said I only travel off the beaten path. After all I continue to claim I am an unsuccessful backpacker. That’s why the bridge is a must-visit. One of the landmarks of San Francisco, this is considered one of the top places to visit in California (actually, northern California) and you should not miss it.
Here’s a selection of the best tours that go there:
- Golden Gate Bay Cruise
- California sunset cruise in San Francisco
- Bay sunset cruise by luxury catamaran
- San Francisco bridge to bridge cruise
- Golden Gate Bridge catamaran cruise
Ride San Francisco Street Cable Car
I was only 13 years old when my uncle visited California and came back with pictures of himself riding the incredible manually operated cable car – the only manually operated one left in the world. It is an icon of the city, and riding it is quite simply a must. During the peak time there were 23 lines running through the city. There now remain only 3 and they are beautiful to look at (and to ride) when in the city. It’s a must-do!
Visit Alcatraz Island
Just over a mile off the coast, in San Francisco Bay, is the legendary Alcatraz Island – allegedly one of the top places to visit in the state. Affectionately known as the Rock, the island is home to one of America’s most notorious federal prisons.
Alcatraz prison operated from 1934 until 1963 and housed infamous criminals like George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly, James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, and Rafael Miranda. Today, it is possible to tour the island and the federal prison thanks to the US National Park Service. One thing to be aware of is that the weather on the island can sometimes be unpredictable. Regardless, make it a point to visit.
Here are some tours that go to Alcatraz Island:
- Alcatraz ticket with walk-on walk-off San Francisco tour pass
- Alcatraz and big bus premium 1-day hop-on hop-off
- City tour with visit to Alcatraz
Roam around Fishermans Wharf
This is probably one of the most touristy spots in town – but locals seem to love it too, so you may as well go for a walk or to grab a bite of delicious sea food. It’s the kind of place where street artists like to hang out, to the vibe is very much easygoing. It reaches perfection at sunset time, when it is time for a good drink.
And San Francisco Chinatown
Love me a good Chinatown – and what a great one this is. So much so that exploring this part of town really qualifies as one of the unmissable things to do in California. This is the kind of place where you can get a fix for any good Chinese food craving, and get lost in the narrow streets while browsing at shops.
Drink all the wine in Napa Valley
If there is one thing you should never miss when you visit California, that’s going on a wine tour in Napa Valley. Make sure to look around for the best vineyards and ask to visit them and pair your visit with wine tasting. You can easily visit the vineyards on a self-guided itinerary, but I recommend going on a guided tour so you don’t have to worry about drinking and driving.
Here are some great tours that go to Napa Valley:
- Redwoods and Wine Country: Napa and Sonoma full day tour
- Small group boutique wine tour with tasting
- Napa and Sonoma full day wine tasting experience
Get a culture fix in Monterey
If you enjoy a little bit of culture and history, then you will love visiting Monterey – definitely one of the best places to visit in California. There you will find several museums and art galleries; a beautiful aquarium; and an excellent selection of good restaurants. Monterey is also home to great beaches.
TIP: Try to visit Monterey on weekdays, as it will be less crowded, and definitely book your place to stay in advance.
Spend a weekend in Santa Cruz or Carmel-by-the-Sea
In Northern California, Santa Cruz and the lovely Carmel-by-the-Sea are two perfect places to spend a weekend. The first enjoys a good, pleasant climate and is a good surfing destination; the second is a seaside village with a relaxed atmosphere and world-class restaurants.
Go to Pfeiffer beach
For a unique place, check out this beach, which is very quiet, beautiful and unusual, because the sand is of a purple color due to manganese garnet particles washed down from the hillside close by.
Get a color fix in Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve
Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve, not far from Los Angeles, is the place to go if you are in need of a color fix and a place to visit if you are traveling to California in the spring – so from mid February to mid May. Keep in mind that you need to stay on the trail and you really can’t pick the flowers!
Visit the Big Sur Region and the Central Coast
A road trip is one of the things to do in California and Big Sur is the ultimate place for that.
This is an area along California’s Central Coast covering roughly 90 miles and one of the coolest areas to visit in California. The Pacific Coast Highway runs right through it. Big Sur is home to Bixby Bridge (the tallest single-span bridge in the world), numerous lighthouses, and some of the most impressive cliffs on the US West Coast.
One thing to be aware of if you plan to drive here is that the Pacific Coast Highway can be very congested during the peak summer months. Visit California in late autumn or early spring if you want to have the highway to yourself. On the other hand, definitely stay away during the winter as this is the rainy season along the coast.
TIP: For off-the-beaten-path place in the area, go to Hearst Castle. It dates back to 1922. You can visit it on a guided tour and then enjoy the views of the Pacific Ocean from there.
Admire McWay Falls
It’s easy to see why McWay falls, an 80 foot (little over 24 meters) waterfall located in Julia Pfeiferr Burns State Park, is one of California’s top attractions. Considered to be a tide fall because of its close proximity to the ocean, it used to fall directly into the Pacific, but then a landslide in 1985 altered the terrain and it now flows to a beach that is not accessible. Admiring the splendid beach and the waterfalls is definitely one of the things to do in California.
Head to Pismo Beach
Pismo Beach, on the Central Coast, is a small town with a beautiful beach perfect for a relaxing day. The downtown area has plenty of souvenir shops and local restaurants; there is a gorgeous beach where you can hang out, go sunbathing, enjoy swimming in the ocean. You can even rent an ATV to explore the beach.
GOOD TO KNOW: Off the California Coast, about 15 minutes drive inland from Pismo Beach there is San Luis Obispo, a sun-drenched city (it enjoys a whopping 315 days of sunshine per year!) with a lovely historic center.
Explore Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks
Sequoia is significantly less crowded than Yosemite, and as such a very good alternative to the most famous park in California. In Sequoia National Park you will get to see the largest trees in the world. Make sure to also explore Kings Canyon National Park, where one of the deepest canyons in North America is located. This is a great place to admire wildlife – if you are lucky, you can spot bears and even cougars.
Visit Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe is thought to be one of the best tourist attractions in California. It is located in the northern part of the state on the border with Nevada. The best thing about it is that there are plenty of things to do year-round.
During the summer months, the region is perfect for sunbathing, hiking, water sports, and other outdoor activities. During the winter, the Lake Tahoe comes alive with skiing and snowmobiling. As an interesting side note, this is one of the largest natural lakes in the world.
You can take this half day photographic scenic tour.
Go Stand Up Paddle Boarding
SUP is growing in popularity among Californians for a number of reasons.
First, it is an inexpensive sport to indulge in. Second, California’s abundant coastline gives paddle boarders plenty of options. And third, there are rental shops everywhere, and wherever they are, there also are experienced instructors who are eager to teach SUP to beginners. It’s definitely what to do in California if you like water!
Go to the beach in San Diego or Los Angeles, and you will often see people do that! If you want to give it a try, these two places are your best bet.
Admire Glass Beach
Once a massive garbage dump, at Glass Beach nature has reclaimed its place, with the sea and wind shaping the glass waste and turning it into small, rounded and colorful pebbles. It’s an incredibly colorful place, but it is difficult to catch its unique beauty on photograph, so visiting is what to do in California to see it with your won eyes. You will be mesmerized by the waves bringing in flashes of colors every time they hit the shore.
Visit Redwood National and State Park
Some Europeans have said that visiting one national park in America is like visiting them all. I don’t think so! Such an assessment is far from the truth. The Redwood National and State Park in the northern part of the California is home to old-growth forests featuring the tallest and most massive trees on the planet and a great place to visit!
The park is densely populated by coastal redwoods, also known as sequoia trees. The sequoias here are the only surviving species of the sequoia genus. The tallest among them approach 400 feet in height and nearly 30 feet in diameter. Some of these trees are so massive that engineers simply bored through them, rather than cutting them down, in order to complete a road through the forest.
Hike around Yosemite National Park
You really should not skip Yosemite National Park when visiting California, especially if you are into hiking, and not after reading Cheryl Strayed’s book and her story of walking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). Boasting more than 1200 km of trails, the park has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1984 thanks to its impressive biodiversity. There are more than 400 different species of animals and just as many kind of birds living in the park.
Places you should not skip in Yosemite National Park include Yosemite Falls, the fifth highest waterfall in the world with a jump of roughly 740 meters. You can even hike to the top of the falls. Another great hike is the one to Half Dome; whereas if you are looking for something a bit less challenging you can consider the Vernal Falls footbridge and the Mirror Lake Loop. For full enjoyment, make sure to go on a multi-day hike for some awe-inspiring landscapes.
Here are some good tours that go to Yosemite:
TIP: For more adventure opportunities, you may want to go to the nearby Mammoth Lakes, which is equally great in the winter, when you can practice ski and other winter sports, and in the summer, for hiking, kayaking and more.
Explore Lassen Volcanic National Park
If you are a volcano junkie like me you should go to Lassen Volcanic National Park. In fact, you should go regardless – visiting is one of the best things to do in California. The landscape is truly stunning, and though the volcano is dormant, you will be able to see geysers, lava rocks and mud pits. The park is open year round – you can enjoy winter sports with the snow, and endless hiking in the spring.
Get your adventure fix in Mount Shasta
Located at the southern end of the Cascade Range in Siskiyou County in Northern California, Mount Shasta is a potentially active volcano and one of the best places to visit in California, especially if you enjoy nature and outdoor activities. This is a great place to go hiking, biking and camping. There are various good hotels and camping sites in Mount Shasta, so there will be no shortage of good places to stay.
TIP: If you like fishing, make sure to spend some time at Lake Siskiyou.
Go to Bodie State Historic Park
If you are a fan of eerie places, one of the best things to do in California is visiting the Old Ghost Town in Bodie State Historic Park. It’s a bit difficult to get there – you will need your own car and several hours of driving from Sacramento (the closest major town); but it is worth it.
A State Historic Park since 1962, Bodie used to be a bustling mining town – the kind you’d see in old Western movies, with a saloon, a main street with stores, prostitutes and what not. People moved out of the city when there was no more gold to dig. You can visit the town independently or go on a guided tour – whichever you opt for, make sure to go to the museum to look at the photos that will show you how the town used to look like back in the day.
Take a Trip to Death Valley
As alive and vibrant as California cities are, Death Valley is equally dead and foreboding. Of all the things to do in California, visiting the Death Valley has to move to the top of your list.
This is the hottest and driest spot in North America. It consists of mile after mile of mostly barren desert, and scorching heat that can be so depressing in the summer that visitors are warned against traveling through during the day.
One of the most mighty sights located in the Death Valley National Park is a place known as Dante’s View. From this one spot, you can see almost the entire valley on a clear day. Make sure to go in the early morning hours before the sun gets oppressively hot.
Go to Badwater Basin
One of the coolest places in the Death Valley is Badwater Basin, known to be the lowest place in the United States at little over 85 meters below sea level. It’s a massive salt flat where you can walk endlessly – but keen in mind it can get scorchingly hot and you will definitely need a hat and sunglasses, and copious amounts of water.
At about 45 km north of Santa Barbara in the Santa Ynez Valley, Solvang is one of the most unique places to visit in California and it will make you feel like you’ve stepped back in time. This is a place that looks, feels and very much is Danish – but from the late 18th century! There is a Hans Christian Andersen Museum that is nice to visit and walking the cobbled alleys and going from one small café to a bakery is a real pleasure. You can even get a fix for traditional Danish food!
Explore Los Angeles
Founded in 1781, Los Angeles started flourishing along the movie industry, from the 1920s onwards. You should make it a point to explore Hollywood and Beverly Hills, as well as Rodeo Drive.
These tours may be perfect to make the most of Los Angeles:
- Warner Bros Hollywood Studio tour
- Sightseeing hop-on hop-off bus ticket
- Hollywood and celebrity homes tour
- Hollywood sign hiking tour to Griffiths Observatory
- Walking tour of Hollywood
- LA City Highlights
Hike to the Hollywood Sign
Nothing screams more California than the Hollywood Sign and the best part of it is that you can hike all the way there – this is by far one of the unmissable things to do in California. You can hike independently or, if you prefer, join a group hike like this one or this one.
Look at the stars from Griffith Observatory
Not far from the Hollywood Sign, Griffith Observatory is the place to go in Los Angeles if you want to admire stars. Other than the stars, the views from there are breathtaking.
Hike Runyon Canyon
If you are in the least bit into hiking as much as I am, one of the best things to do in California is a going on a hike. Trails are not amiss there – and you will find an abundance of them even close to Los Angeles. Runyon Canyon hike is one of the most popular ones. There are several trails in the park, for hikes of all levels and duration. You will definitely find one that suits your interests and expertise!
Visit Broad Museum
If you are a fan of contemporary art, visiting Broad Museum in Los Angeles will be one of the unmissable things to do in California for you. The museum if free to visit, and you can admire pieces of – among many others – Andy Warhol.
Attend a Lakers Game
I am a firm believer that there is no better way to get a good understanding of the local vibe than attending a sports game. Now – California is a big state so you definitely can’t associate all its people with those that go to the stadium, but you get the idea. Besides, it is one of the most fun things to do in California! Lakers play at the Staples Center and the season goes from October to April – so this is something you can do if you visit California in the fall, winter or spring.
Shop at Grove Shopping Mall
Chances are you won’t be able to afford much at this shopping mall, as it is a favorite of celebrities and – as such – one of the most expensive places in Los Angeles. So, opt for window shopping and people-watching – among the best things to do in California anyways!
Walk on Santa Monica Pier
You will have heard of Santa Monica from movies and TV series, and will definitely know it’s one of the places where Hollywood celebrities love to live. It is famous for its Santa Monica Pier, a landmark of the Golden State for over 100 years. Walking along the Pier, riding its famous solar powered Ferris wheel, and enjoying its amusement park are simply unmissable. If you have time, make sure to also go to Pacific Pier.
Santa Monica is also a great place for surfing or – waves permitting – stand up paddle; and for a romantic getaway: you will find plenty of excellent dining opportunities.
Go to Venice Beach
Venice Beach is quintessential Southern California replete with roller skaters, sunbathers, and those infinite California girls the Beach Boys used to sing about (I wonder if with my pale skin and dark hair I could ever pass for one?). This is also home to the world-famous Muscle Beach, where some of the biggest names in bodybuilding got their start.
And to Malibu Surfrider Beach
As you may have gathered, one of the best things to do in California is learning how to surf and there is no better place for that than Malibu Surfrider Beach. There are surf shops where you can rent your gear and you can even sign up for a surf lesson – probably a good idea if you are a complete newbie.
Spend a day in Santa Catalina
Santa Catalina island is located off the coast of Southern California, at about 48 miles from Los Angeles, and is the kind of place where you can enjoy all sorts of nature and adventure activities such as zip lining. You can go snorkeling, stand up paddle boarding, horse riding and camping – there are also plenty of kid-friendly things to do. If that is not your kind of thing, you can opt to visit one of the museums or art galleries.
Explore Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara is the kind of place where no matter your taste in travel you can find something you will enjoy. Great beaches and coves? Check. Good weather? Definitely check. Culture, history and art? Once again, check.
One of the things you are bound to love in Santa Barbara is the presence of Spanish Colonial Revival Style architecture. Head to Casa Del Herrero and the Old Mission for great examples of it.
If you are in search for something a bit more active, you will find plenty of rock climbing, hiking, kayaking, cycling, boating, fishing opportunities. And if you are in search of good wine of it in the surrounding vineyards, where you will have plenty of chances to go wine tasting. For a fabulous wine tasting tour of Santa Barbara, click here.
Spend a day in Anaheim
Anaheim is a small city outside Los Angeles, in Orange County, Southern California. It is best known as the home of Disneyland Resort and a great destination for families with children. But the Disney themed park isn’t the only place you should visit there!
If you enjoy the ocean, make sure to head to Huntington Beach. This beautiful beach is perfect for surfing. If you are in search of a bit of culture, you will find some interesting museums. A few minutes drive from Anaheim you will find Santa Ana, home of The Discovery Cube Orange County, which was once known as the Discovery Science Center and the Taco Bell Discovery Science Center.
If science is not your thing, head to the Bowers Museum, which has a great art collection.
Or at Disneyland
While Walt Disney World in Florida is the most popular tourist attraction in the US, the Disney brand started in Anaheim, California. Disneyland is one of the biggest tourist attractions in California, and visiting is one of the most family-friendly activities.
The Disneyland amusement park actually consists of two separate parks and a shopping district all within the same general neighborhood. It’s easy to see why going to Disneyland is one of the coolest things to do in California. There are three local hotels with direct access to the Disney property.
If Disneyland doesn’t sound appealing, you may want to opt for another theme park visit of Universal Studios Hollywood. Make sure you get your ticket before going here.
Hike the San Clemente Beach Coastal Trail
Also located in Orange County, San Clemente Beach Coastal Trail is a roughly 3 km trail that gives access to the shoreline of San Clemente. It’s open every day from 4:00 am to midnight, and you can easily walk it, bike it or run it and get to access San Clemente and Calafia beach. It’s a favorite of locals as well as tourists, so a great place where you will find a mixed crowd.
Explore Joshua Tree National Park
Visiting Joshua Tree National Park is one of the best things to do in California. I recommend spending at least a couple of days there to take in the incredible views and the desert landscape. It’s the kind of place you should go if you are tired of all the traffic, noise and pollution of the city. Make sure to set your alarm clock extra early, in time to catch the most incredible sunrise!
Visit Palm Springs
There is no doubt that Palm Springs is one of the coolest small cities in California. This is the kind of place where people from LA go spend a weekend. It’s packed with buildings in modernist style, and you will also be able to spot vintage cars. The city is nicely set in the desert, so the climate is pleasant especially in the winter months.
TIP: If you are looking for a lesser-known place to visit (at least to foreigners), head to Anza-Borrego State Park. It’s less than 2 hours drive from town and you will be able to admire an incredible desert landscape with beautiful rock formations, mountains, flora and fauna.
Roam around San Diego
San Diego is the oldest city in California, and one of the most fun to visit. Right by the Pacific Ocean, this is a place where you will get a proper idea of what laid-back means. But there is a lot to see!
Among the places you shouldn’t miss there are the Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá, the birthplace of Christianity in California; Balboa Park; Old Town San Diego State Historic Park; and the world-famous San Diego Zoo (more about that below). At a short drive from San Diego, La Jolla is the perfect place for a day at the beach.
Visit San Diego Zoo
I would never recommend visiting a zoo due to ethical concerns, but I have to make an exception for this one and if you happen to be in Southern California you really should go. This century-old zoo, which has an incredible variety of animals, is known for its efforts in conservation. Enclosures are cage-less and meant to recreate the animals natural habitat. The on-site veterinarians, scientists and keepers make an enormous effort to keep the animals happy, active and healthy.
You can get tickets for San Diego Zoo here.
Check out my post A Quick Guide To Ethical Animal Tourism.
Further readings about the United States
Make sure to read my other posts:
- A Great Itinerary For 3 Days In San Francisco
- The Best Day Trips From San Francisco
- 9 National Parks In California You Must Visit
- The Best Free Things To Do In San Diego
- The Best Cities To Visit In The US
- How To Plan A Fabulous Trip To Miami
- 35 Amazing Things To Do In New York
- The Perfect Itinerary To See New York In 2 Days
- A Fabulous Itinerary For 3 Days In New York
- An Easy To Follow Itinerary For 4 Days In New York
- 5 Days In New York: An Easy To Follow New York Itinerary
- A Great Itinerary For A Week In New York
- A Wonderful Itinerary For A Day In New York
- A Complete Guide To Visiting The Statue Of Liberty
- 10 Not To Miss Hikes Near Denver
- The 23 Best National Parks In USA
- 22 Gorgeous Lavender Fields Around The World